Russell Westbrook's Absence Has Been a Blessing in Disguise for Serge Ibaka

Fred Katz@@FredKatzFeatured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2014

Oklahoma City Thunder Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) celebrates with teammate Serge Ibaka during an NBA basketball game between the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City, Friday, Nov. 29, 2013. Oklahoma City won 113-112. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Serge Ibaka is learning that sometimes, the best way to teach someone to swim is by throwing him in the deep end.

Ibaka used to rely so heavily on Russell Westbrook, but after the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard missed 27 games with a knee injury, Ibaka had to adjust his game. And in that, he's started to mature into an independent success.

There was a sort of unparalleled chemistry between Ibaka and Westbrook in the past. Actually, last year, when Westbrook was healthy for the whole season, he assisted Serge on just barely over half of his assisted field-goal makes.

Those assisted field goals are a major part of Ibaka's game, considering how he gets most of his offense. Twenty percent of Ibaka's plays last season were out of the pick-and-roll, according to MySynergySports (subscription required). This season, that number is up to 28 percent.

Ibaka's offensive game is all about the pick-and-roll and the spot-up jumper mainly because he has become such an accurate mid-range shooter. On that screen-and-roll, he pops more than a can of Pringles. 

He hit 164 mid-range jumpers last season while shooting 51 percent from that area. That was with Westbrook, whom he once relied on so heavily.

This year, with no Westbrook in more than half his games, he's already made 140 mid-range shots. Essentially, Ibaka has figured out what he's good at, and he's doing only that. He's completely staying in his comfort zone.

That's how he's gone up from 4.0 mid-range shots per game a year ago to 5.3 attempts a game this season. And remember, this is all without Westbrook.

Between his polished game and improved chemistry with Kevin Durant, Ibaka is progressing at a rate he may not have been able to had Westbrook been there to act as his aid.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Ibaka has always been a mid-range-heavy player. That was always his style, and even though the mid-range shot is generally considered the least efficient field-goal attempt in basketball, that's not necessarily as bad as it sounds.

Sure, you're not getting fouled often on a jumper, and league-average shooting is usually around only 40 percent on those shots, but Ibaka is far head of average. He's ahead of great. He's a few steps beyond that.

When you're hitting 51 percent of your mid-range jumpers, like Ibaka did last season, you're doing just fine. When you come back the following year and you're hitting 48 percent of them on an even higher volume of shots, no one is going to complain.

Ibaka used to depend so much on Westbrook's playmaking ability for him to succeed. That's mainly because he wasn't yet a fully multidimensional offensive player. He could finish, he could shoot and he could screen, but his skills were mainly partial.

Serge could hit a shot, but he couldn't get one completely on his own. He could go up around the rim, but he sometimes struggled to put himself in a good position in the restricted area. His game was skilled, but not completely polished.

But Ibaka was in his early 20s. What do you possibly expect?

So often, we look at ripped, super-athletic bigs and think they have to make an immediate impact. 

How could this guy not dominate? Look at his shoulders. Look at his explosion. He should be destroying opponents right now!

But that's not how basketball works.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Big men usually take longer to develop their games than guards or wings. Think about how awkward you were in your pubescent growing stages. Well, imagine extending that phase of your life into late adolescence or early adulthood.

That's what tends to happen when you're 6'9" or 6'10" or even 7 feet. At some point, you're just going to be awkward. And for bigs around the NBA, so much of development depends on how long that awkward stage lasts.

Ibaka, as an NBA player, was never really awkward. He could shoot immediately upon entering the league. His coordination was remarkably apparent as soon as he stepped on a pro basketball court. But some of the skills leading up to his shooting (the spacing, the off-ball movement, the screening) weren't always there.

In a way, his progression has been as mental as it's been physical. The brain is a muscle too, and doing the same things over and over again can create mental muscle memory. That's been true for Ibaka.

This year, he's just better. Across the board, the per-minute numbers are up. The scoring, shot attempts, the rebounding; it's all better. He's even hitting 37 percent of his threes.

But that's Ibaka. He's started doing exactly what he's good at and no more. 

Just look at his three-point shooting. Of his 41 long-range attempts, 39 of them have come from the corners, where the three-point line is only 22 feet away. 

He's learning. He's taken his style and perfected it.

Without Westbrook gone, Ibaka lost his crutch. He had to learn how to play more on his own, how to develop a similar chemistry with other ball-handlers. 

In the 27 games that Westbrook was out, Kevin Durant was the passer on 45 percent of Ibaka's assisted field-goal makes. And it's not like Ibaka's volume went down. He still took 12.5 shots per game over that stretch.

Serge Ibaka is getting better. The numbers show it. His game shows it. And for that, he can subtly thank the more independent role he had to take on once Russell Westbrook left the Thunder lineup.


Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

*All statistics current as of Feb. 22 and from and (subscription required to access some stats) unless otherwise noted.